Let Us All Strive to Be Human
“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Like so many, I hate what happened in Boston last week. It makes me ill, to think of this kind of carnage and hatred and innocence lost, all rolled up together into a messy, bloody heap. Like so many, all at once I feel impotent and aggrieved and disheartened and uplifted by the events. Heroism is such a transcendental moment: offers of comfort to complete strangers, running one way rather than another, all of it.
It is the mounting blood-thirsty quest for vengeance, though, that makes me shudder the most: “Kill them.” “I hope they die.” “Catch them and kill them.” Again and again, I hear it – not even whispered, not even a hesitant question. Just, “Let me see them bloody and dead.”
Is our sense of justice and tolerance adjustable based on circumstances? If so, is the death penalty a bad thing – except when we're really angry? Or scared? Is tolerance demanded except when we need to be intolerant? I do not condone the actions of these two men. And really, though they have been tried and found guilty in our heads and in our hands, they have not been convicted in a court of law. Isn't that supposed to mean something?
I saw the face of the first suspected terrorist in the newsfeeds on my computer, and during the sound bites that burst on every erstwhile news program on television. During the manhunt, I heard the howls for his blood, cries for vengeance to be paid for the deaths he brought to innocents. Still, I don't know, not with 100% certainty, that he committed these acts of terror and atrocity.
We can guess, and sift through the evidence, and debate and study and deduce, but that man’s voice is lost forever. Who knows? Perhaps, had that first suspect been captured, he would have spewed hatred and invective and confessed for those horrific acts – or perhaps not. As of this writing, police have captured the second man, broken and silent in a hospital bed, and we hover over him, ready to question him for his actions and those of his suspected accomplice – and still I hear the howls, craving his bloody death and torture for his crimes.
I am not saying these young men were innocent – but my heart is breaking nonetheless. Yes, there should be justice, but have we suddenly made a weird U-turn and landed back some 2,500 years ago, to an-eye-for-an-eye justice? Is that what we want? Is that really justice?
I'm simple, perhaps, and quite naïve, and terrified to say what I really feel about all of this, for fear of instant castigation. I always thought that goodness and justice and love and all that crap should cover all the bases, even when—especially when—it makes you uncomfortable and angry and sad. But all I seem to hear now is this salacious and triumphant howl of victory over more dead bodies. I guess it's just that the “right” bodies that are lifeless right now.
There is a midrash, a story our rabbis tell, about the rejoicing and jubilation that God’s angels made, when the waters of the parted Sea crashed over the Egyptians who pursued the children of Israel in their flight from slavery into freedom. The angels danced at the death and destruction, laughed as those Egyptian soldiers and taskmasters drowned, and hard-hearted Pharaoh was no more. They celebrated until the Angel of Death silenced them with a cry of anger and pain that went all the way to God’s very center, to God’s very heart.
“Why do you rejoice?” God cried out.
“The idolaters are dead!” replied the Angels.
And God wept, saying “Are they not My children, too?”
There are no easy answers. Terrorism and violence must be eradicated. But we cannot accomplish this task at the expense of our humanity. We must not, or what will we have become?
Anne Frank reiterated her belief in the basic goodness of people, even as she hid in fear of the mob that was howling outside her door – thirsting for her blood and her death – absolutely convinced of her guilt and of their righteousness. She was an animal to be hunted, vermin to be exterminated.
It was Rabbi Hillel who asked us to strive to be human in a place where there are no humans.
Indeed, in a place where there are no humans, let us all strive to be human.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. She blogs at Stumbling towards meaning: Stacey’s Blog.